Copywriting Lessons from Fiction: Write Leads That Hook Your Readers

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I’ve been wondering…

What’s the point of a beautifully-crafted blog post, Facebook ad, or email if the lede (opening) doesn’t work?

If your core message and call to action are deep within a piece, your opening needs to “wow” your readers enough to get them there. If it doesn’t, you’ve wasted time and money producing the article.

Give Your Opening the Most Attention

As a consultant for creative writers, I spend a lot of time helping people to make their stories, poems, or essays more effective. There, more than anywhere, it is critically important to have a strong start.

I’ve found that a lot of writers have very serviceable starts, and these can be followed by a strong story. But often the way they begin a creative project is with a passage that lacks energy or that can be hacked off completely without any loss to the whole.

Don't Talk About the Sun (Or the Sunset. Or the Moon)

A good example is those stories that begin with setting information: “The sun was just cresting the mountain when Carol drove over to the shadowed side of the ridge.” You see what I mean — there’s not anything technically wrong with that opening, and it’s even kind of pretty in a way.

But that beginning, which works hard to establish the place where something happened, ignores the fact that readers are more interested in characters involved in activities than they are in mere places. It barely matters what the sun looks like if Carol is about to find a dead body in the road, or she collides into a UFO parked in the gravel, or she decides then and there to start a Barbie museum.

And I’m not immune. I often start poems with time markers—Once …, or When I was a child …, or Just yesterday ….

Another thing about the setting-as-lead is that it’s pretty obvious. Too obvious. When I was the editor of a prominent national literary journal, we frequently joked about all the ways that the sun could look, all the places it could start to appear or disappear, all the things it was like.

This principle, which is true for fiction, essays, and poems, is also true for journalistic leads. We must not begin in a way that is familiar or expected; we must work hard not to bore the person who has the power to buy our story or to pass on it (or, in the case of copywriting, we can’t afford to bore the audience who we’re selling to).

Tips for Writing Great Leads

Here are some tips for crafting leads that hook readers:

  • Start with a compelling quote; then contextualize it so readers will quickly feel oriented.

  • Start with a description of action.

  • Start with a startling statistic or fact.

  • Start with an opinion or confession.

  • Start with a provocative statement that the rest of the story will prove true.

  • Start with the question the article will answer.

Here is one question that I think is really important: Did you use your very first idea for a lead? If you did, there is a very good chance that your opening strategy is the obvious one. Spend a few minutes thinking about a better way in; this is the way to fresh writing.